By Seumas MacNeill

Seumas MacNeill

From August to November 1773 Dr. Samuel Johnson and his disciple, Mr James Boswell, made a tour in Scotland, most of it in the Western Islands. Iain Dubh MacCrimmon was 42 years of age and living in Skye but the two travellers did not meet him. Donald Ruadh was living in North Carolina at this time. Nevertheless, the two men did hear a fair bit of piping and each of them recorded his impressions occasionally. These are worth looking at, considering that they were written over 200 years ago at a time when it was illegal to play the bagpipe in the Highlands and when the memories of the ’45 Rising were still fresh in people’s minds.

When they returned to London Johnson wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell some time later, in 1785, published The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. The page numbers of the following quotations refer to the edition edited by R. W. Chapman and published by the Oxford University Press in 1970.

Johnson, of course, was prepared to pontificate on anything and everything. He was however a mental giant and probably the best-read man of his time. His comments, therefore, are always accurate and interesting, and probably a true reflection of what he saw and what he was told. Of the pipes he says:

“The solace which the bagpipe can give, they have long enjoyed; but among other changes, which the last Revolution introduced, the use of the bagpipe begins to be forgotten, Some of the chief families still entertain a piper, whose office was anciently hereditary. Macrimmon was piper to MacLeod, and Rankin to MacLean of Coll.

“The tunes of the bagpipe are traditional. There has been in Sky, beyond all time of memor college of pipers, under the direction of Macrimmon, which is not quite extinct. There was another in Mull, superintended by Rankin, which expired about sixteen years ago. To these colleges, while the pipe retained its honour, the students of musick repaired for education. I have had my dinner exhilarated by the bagpipe, at Armidale, at Dunvegan and in Col.”

(Page 93)
Boswell, left and Johnson.

Later he notes the peculiar relationships that exist between a chief and the various other important members of the clan. He comments that some of these arise from the fact that the use of money was very unusual, most transactions within the Islands being carried out on a barter system.

“When a beef was killed for the house, particular parts were claimed as fees by the several officers, or workmen. What was the right of each I have not learned. The head belonged to the smith, and the udder of a cow to the piper.”

(Page 103)

His visit to Coll seems to have given him a great deal of pleasure and he describes the attitude of the Laird as follows:

“He has a proper disposition of a Chieftain, and seems desirous to continue the customs of his house. The bagpiper played regularly, when dinner was served, whose person and dress made a good appearance; and he brought no disgrace upon the family of Rankin, which has long supplied the Lairds of Col with hereditary musick.”

(Page 116)

Unfortunately, he does not seem to have been invited aboard the Laird of Coll’s barge, where he might have heard a most appropriate tune.

Boswell, as might be expected, wrote a great deal more about the trip than did his famous companion. He did not mention piping very often but he gives an excellent description of how a Highland gentleman was dressed — and it is interesting to note that although the kilt was still proscribed in 1773 (and had been for 27 years) it was obviously worn quite openly and regularly. This fact may also to contradict the suggestion (which is sometimes made) that piping was non-existent during the proscription. Not only is it obvious that piping continued in the Highlands between 1746 and 1782 (when the act was repealed) but also the wearing of tartan and the kilt, in direct defiance of the law, was not uncommon.

Speaking of Malcolm MacLeod of Raasay, who had been one of the heroes of the ’45 but who is more famous to us in piping as having been the first teacher of John MacKay, he says:

“Mr Malcolm MacLeod, one of the Rasay family, celebrated in the year 1745-6. He was now sixty-two years of age, hale, and well proportioned — with a manly countenance, tanned by the weather, yet having a ruddiness in his cheeks, over a great part of which his rough beard extended. His eye was quick and lively, yet his look was not fierce, but he appeared at once firm and good humoured. He wore a pair of brogues, tartan hose which came up only to his knees, and left them bare, a purple camblet kilt, a black waistcoat, a short green cloth coat bound with gold cord, a yellowish bushy wig, a large blue bonnet with a gold thread button. I never saw a figure that gave a more perfect presentation of a Highland gentleman.”

(Page 264)

MacDonald of Kingsburgh, the husband of Flora MacDonald, was also a snappy dresser:

“Kingburgh … had its tartan plaid thrown about him, a large blue bonnet with a knot of black ribband like a cockade, a brown short coat of a kind of duffil, a tartan waistcoat with gold buttons and gold button holes, a bluish philibeg and Tartan hose.”

(Page 279)

Boswell’s first mention of the bagpipe has a proper ceilidh sound about it:

“We danced tonight to the musick of the bagpipe, which made us beat the ground with prodigious force.

(Page 346)
Artwork from 'The Little Book of Piping Quotations' (2004) by Stuart Letford and reproduced with permission.
Artwork from ‘The Little Book of Piping Quotations’ (2004) by Stuart Letford and reproduced with permission.

This occurred at Armadale where they were invited to stay at Sir Alexander MacDonald’s house in his absence.

Piping was very obviously an important part of daily life even at that time. Boswell looked back on the trip and says:

“We had the musick of the bagpipe every day, at Armidale, Dunvegan, and Col. Dr Johnson appeared fond of it, and used often to stand for some time with his ear close to the great drone.”

(Page 372)

Why Johnson should prefer the bass drone to all the other sounds is something of a mystery. He was, of course, an inveterate seeker after knowledge, going boldly forth where no man previously had trod. Perhaps he was enjoying the rich harmonies; perhaps, like Robert Donnington, he appreciated how “the perpetual pedal of the drones induces a philosophic calm”; perhaps he was only standing there for shelter. We shall never know.

* From the January 1998 issue of the Piping Times.